COVID-19 school data in Florida leaves questions unanswered

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The Florida Department of Health (FDOH) has begun releasing data tracking the spread of COVID-19 in the state’s 4,517 K-12 public schools and 12 universities.

The results are “good news,” according to Gov. Ron DeSantis, but critics said the data is incomplete, inadequate and does little to resolve fears parents of Florida’s 2.76 million school children may have about the safety of in-person instruction during the pandemic.

According to data, 4,689 COVID-19 cases linked to Florida’s K-12 schools and universities were reported by school districts to the FDOH between Sept. 6 and Sept. 26. The vast majority of Florida K-12 schools reopened in August with in-person classes.

Of those cases, 3,821 were K-12 and college students, 334 were instructors or staff and 534 were “unknown.” The report noted 782 positive cases were uncovered by testing, with the infected not displaying symptoms.

The FDOH report is an unadorned school-by-school listing of documented cases in each county during the three-week September span. It includes no context explaining how numbers were collected, nor an explanation as to why a significant number of schools are missing.

There also are wide discrepancies in the numbers reported by FDOH and those reported by school districts on their websites; about half of the state’s 67 county school districts post daily COVID-19 updates online.

The University of Florida (UF) dashboard documented 100 cases of COVID-19 reported by students and staff Sept. 6. On Sept. 7, UF reported 70 more cases. According to the FDOH report, only one COVID-19 case has been reported at UF since Sept. 6.

The University of Central Florida dashboard indicates 534 student cases of COVID-19 have been reported this semester. The FDOH lists only 160 cases.

The FDOH released school-specific data after news organizations threatened to sue DeSantis in August for violating state public records laws.

DeSantis and Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said the data was confidential and would be shared with only school boards before begrudgingly consenting. The governor said two weeks ago the delay in posting the data was to ensure it could be presented in a “digestible format.”

DeSantis said Tuesday he “wanted the data released for one reason: good news.”

“I want to get it out because you know why? The story is a good story to tell,” he said.

The governor said the data confirms a lack of transmission between students and teachers, and between students and peers, with no “community spread” occurring since schools opened.

“As you get older, you’re a more efficient transmitter compared to someone in fifth grade,” DeSantis said. “Even if there were to be an outbreak at a middle school, 10 days later, did any get sick? Need medical attention? The answer almost always is, ‘no.’ ”

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